He'd been playing his whole life. He "couldn't live without it," he told Derek Richardson in an interview back in 1999, seven years before his death at the age of seventy-two. He had realized his biggest dream and sung for the first time at the Grand Ole Opry just two weeks prior. By then he was known as the "Pavarotti of the Plains." An accomplished guitarist, singer and songwriter. A yodeling cowboy. Slim Whitman's chummy and chubby doppelganger.
He sure had come a long way from that shy kid who'd climb trees and sing only to the wind.
Strumming what's known as roots music since he was eleven, at the age of sixteen he shared local club bills with fourteen year old Buddy Holly, who lived sixty miles north of the older musician, up Highway 87—a straight shot from Lamesa to Lubbock—at the southern edge of the Texas Panhandle.
Nine years later, Buddy would be killed in a plane wreck.
Had he imagined what if? If he had played Holly's final concert in Clear Lake, Iowa? If he hadn't refused to change his style? If he had chosen to leave Texas, lured by rock'n'roll and dreams of celebrity and riches? If he'd been chartering planes? If he'd been on the Beachcraft that hit the frozen, snow-covered cornfield outside of Clear Lake in the early morning of February 3, 1959?
His name was Don Walser. And to wonder would have been a luxury. Walser had stayed in the Panhandle, sidelined his music aspirations to raise a family in the dusty plains, high winds and boundless horizons of the northwestern Texan sky. He'd grease gears as a mechanic and work as an auditor for the National Guard. At night, he'd scrub his hands with powdered Boraxo, pick out the grime from under his nails, and leave his small ranch house to play local clubs with The Texas Plainsmen. Or he and his band might gather at a radio station and bang out a few numbers for its listeners.
But all of Texas had known him anyway. If he'd not put family before fame, he might easily have been just as much a household name as Holly. All of Texas had sung his songs, had waltzed and two-stepped and howled (and in later years, even moshed) with Don Walser for nearly half a century. All of Texas had heard the radio dispatches from Lubbock's KDAV deejay, High Pockets, rooting out a teenage Walser—who had no phone—so that he might appear in a local gig.
Walser would later play festivals with Tommy Allsup, one of Holly's back-up band members who took the bus that fateful February evening after losing the coin toss (for a plane seat) to Richie Valens.
When Walser was first discovered in 1990 by a talent scout who found him playing in Austin with his new band, Pure Texas Gang, he was singing Rolling Stone From Texas, a song he'd written at least thirty years earlier.
(Music kicks in at 1:08 -- WAIT for the yodel at 1:55!)
In 1994, at almost sixty years of age, and after he had retired from forty-five years of serving and working for the the Guard, Walser signed his first record deal.
In 1996, he opened for Johnny Cash at the Erwin Center in Austin, TX.
Don Walser—family man, gifted musician, happy cowpoke, cultural treasure of the Lone Star State—died in 2006. He'll forever be remembered for his music, his perfect tenor voice, his down-home sensibility, and his masterful yodeling.
Like Holly, Walser's music appealed not only to country fans, but also to rock'n'rollers around the globe. The old Texas country music with which he'd spent a lifetime preserving was embraced even by punk rockers. I wonder if the little guy who sang in trees would have ever imagined that.
Yodelhayhee, yodelhayhee, yodelhoo.